Tech's liability shield under fire: 26 words and what's at stake


Democrats and Republicans in Congress are taking aim at a controversial law that shields internet platforms including Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. from lawsuits over content posted by users.

The measure — just 26 words known as Section 230 — now faces its biggest reckoning since it was included in the Communications Decency Act of 1996. Here’s a guide to the proposals on the table.

SAFE TECH: Hate Speech and Civil Rights

The Safeguarding Against Fraud, Exploitation, Threats, Extremism and Consumer Health (SAFE TECH) Act was the first Section 230 bill introduced in the Senate on Feb. 5.

The legislation would hold tech companies liable for content falling within four categories: civil rights, international human rights, antitrust and stalking, harassment or intimidation. It proposes companies can be held liable for wrongful death actions.

The measure would dramatically change the underlying law to limit companies’ liability protections by treating them as a publisher of any paid content on their platforms. That includes advertising that generates rich profits for Google, Twitter and Facebook.

PACT ACT: Content Moderation and Consumer Rights

The bipartisan Platform Accountability and Consumer Transparency (PACT) Act was introduced in the Senate in June 2020. It would require “large online platforms” to remove content within 24 hours if notified of a court determination that the content is illegal. Companies would be required to issue reports, including data on content that’s been removed, demonetized, or deprioritized. The legislation would allow the US Justice Department, Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general to pursue civil lawsuits for online activity.

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EARN IT ACT: Child Exploitation

The bipartisan Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies (EARN IT) Act was introduced in the Senate in March 2020. It would allow for state civil and criminal lawsuits as well as federal civil lawsuits if companies advertise, promote, present, distribute or solicit child sexual abuse material. The legislation would also establish a National Commission on Online Child Sexual Exploitation Prevention that would create voluntary best practices for the industry.

INDUSTRY OPPOSITION

The Internet Association said that Section 230 strikes a “careful balance” between protecting companies from lawsuits and encouraging them to proactively remove hate and extremist speech online. Removing the protections would create a disincentive for companies to moderate any content for fear of being sued, the group says.

Still, many of the companies recognize that some change to the measure is inevitable and are prepared to work with lawmakers to help hammer out proposals — also in the interest of avoiding more draconian measures.





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